Personalise High

All the recent debate around Demand High seems to have died down a little but, as ever with these blog-splosions discussing different viewpoints, it has given cause for reflection about what we do in class and why. It also seems to have caused must discussion about what learners need and what they benefit from, which can only be a good thing.

Mike Harrison came up with the most resonating response for me (see his post ‘How I demand high, and how you could too’) as personalisation is something I have always felt is key to helping students of all ages connect with the language and practically use what they have been learning.

Image by @HanaTicha via #eltpics

And so it was I found myself in an elementary level language class yesterday evening with three adult learners working through a grammar-based activity much like the one featured in Jim Scrivener’s IATEFL Demand High talk. As the students were nearing completion of the activity, I found myself pondering some of the ‘Demand High’ ideas for reviewing the answers as well as the wider debate around it all.

But first some background on the students: one is a French lady who learned English at high school but hasn’t really used it since. That means she has gaps in her knowledge and struggles with forming sentences correctly, which affects her confidence when speaking. Another is a gentleman from Cameroon who performs well in grammar tasks but is also reluctant at times when speaking because he feels his Cameroonian accent impedes his ability to make himself understood. Finally, there is a Gabonese lady who speaks well for this level but immediately tenses up when faced with grammar or pronunciation work.

So, I have three students who for different reasons have inhibitions about grammar and/or speaking. We have only been together for four weeks so they are still getting into the routine of being back in the language classroom and we are still in many ways getting to know each other. The classroom relationship is still developing. And this is where my first issue with ‘demand high’ arises. If I followed some of the suggestions made to ‘play devil’s advocate’ even when the right answers were given or ask for the answer to be spoken in a different way, I can’t help but feel I would be harming their confidence. The two students who have concerns about their use of grammar need encouragement at this stage and not a teacher raising an eyebrow and saying “hmmm… Are you sure? Does anyone have a different answer?” The student who is reluctant to speak because of his accent needs coaxing to open up more and not be told ‘say it like you are surprised!’

My first priority with these learners is to minimise their fears. I agree with the ‘demand high’ idea of not lavishing praise on them or simply rubberstamping the correct (or nearly correct) answers but I take issue with the idea of taking it to the other extreme by not confirming a right or wrong answer either way and therefore creating doubt and confusion. My approach was first of all to get the three of them together to compare their answers. In the case of any discrepancies, they would need to decide which answer was right. This all happens without input from me and gives them a chance to confirm and clarify before we go through the activity as a whole group (of course, the three of them together is the whole group but it still makes a difference when they are placed in an intimate group and when they are ‘exposed’ to the entire physical space of classroom, teacher, and board).

When we check together, I do not of course simply run through the answers. Nor do I just focus on the mistakes or the alternatives. The key thing I feel I do is to bring a personal connection to the activity. Last night’s gap-fill focused on positive and negative statements with present simple and one of the examples was “My husband ________ the housework. (-)” Upon confirming the answer “My husband doesn’t do the housework” I asked the French lady, who is married, “is this true in your house?” She proceeded to explain that her husband doesn’t do much housework (great way to bring quantified statements into the lesson) but she understands this because he works long hours (thus adding reasons and explanations to simple statements.

The other students are not married so I asked them “who does the housework in your home?” (a nice pre-cursor to bringing in question forms). Again, a small discussion ensued despite their limited language.

A couple of lines down, there came the sentence “People in Britain don’t have ID cards.” This came as a surprise to them and led into another mini discussion about ID cards and the different information that is included on them in France, Cameroon, and Gabon.

Just small things maybe but these little tangents allowed us to make connections between the context-free examples in the exercise and our own lives and also gave us cause to explore the language a little deeper, looking at how statements can be adjusted and also reviewing/extending the personal information items we had covered a couple of weeks earlier.

There was no need to challenge, frustrate, create doubts, or demand high. All we needed to change a dry activity to a more productive one with the added benefits of giving them time to speak, explore the language, and grow in confidence was a personal touch. That for me is the way to engage students and ensure the lessons is not about ‘going through the motions’.

Personalise, and personalise high – doesn’t have much of a ring to it but it’s what the students need.